Engagement is a crucial part of learning, but ensuring students are actively engaged is more complex than whether a student is paying attention or not. As technology has made its way into the classroom many educators describe how attentive students are when on devices, but a quiet, outwardly behaved student is not the same thing as one that is truly engaged. The kind of engagement that leads to learning is three dimensional.

Too often educators look at engagement as a “yes or no” question: students are either engaged or they’re not. “That is absolutely not an appropriate way to view it,” said John Almarode, associate professor at James Madison University and co-director of the school’s Center for STEM Education and Outreach. “It is not a one-dimensional concept.”

When Almarode visits classrooms he looks for behavioral, emotional and cognitive engagement at play together. He points out that on-task behavior is not a strong measure of learning. More than that, a student might behave, but be miserable. “Everything we know about the neuroscience of learning is that emotion drives cognition,” he said. But even if a student is behaving and feels good about it, if he or she isn’t actively making meaning out of the information, then active engagement still hasn’t been reached.

When Almarode visits classrooms he looks for eight different qualities that indicate students are engaged.

  1. Does the activity, strategy, task, or idea allow for the student to personalize his or her response? Can they bring their life experiences into the activity and make it their own?
  2. Are there clear and modeled expectations?
  3. Is there a sense of audience above and beyond the teacher and the test? Does the activity have value to someone else?
  4. Is there social interaction? Do students have an opportunity to talk about the learning and interact?
  5. Is there a culture of emotional safety? Are mistakes valued because they are an opportunity to learn?
  6. Do students have opportunities to choose within the activity?
  7. Is it an authentic activity? This doesn’t mean it always must connect directly to the student’s world, but it should connect to reality.
  8. Is the task new and novel? If kids are bored, it’s hard to see engagement

It’s undoubtedly hard to get all eight measures of engagement into every classroom activity, but research by John Antonetti shows that at least three can make a big difference for how much kids learn. “In classrooms where you had at least three characteristics in each assignment students demonstrated sustained cognitive engagement between 84 and 86 percent of the time,” Almarode said. When only two characteristics were present students were only cognitively engaged about 16 percent of the time, and that number dropped to less than four percent when only one characteristic was present.

“As a teacher, as you design a task you need at least three of those characteristics in there,” Almarode said. More than that, the characteristics should be observable to anyone who walks into the room. For example, when Almarode walks into a room on a visit, he should be able to ask any student what the class is working on, what the teacher’s expectations are and how it will lead to learning. He might also look for whether students are talking about the topic and bringing in their own experiences. These observations show him students are on-task, as well as emotionally and cognitively engaged.

The other thing he watches out for is whether the activity meets the expressed expectations. For example, if a student says the activity is to describe the phases of the moon, but the actual task only requires him to match pictures to vocabulary, then the activity isn’t actually requiring students to describe. In that example, the cognitive engagement expected did not match the cognitive engagement Almarode saw in the work students were doing.

Effective feedback on work is another crucial aspect of three-dimensional engagement. Almarode knows how difficult it is for teachers to grade all the assigned work, but he’s also convinced by evidence that shows immediate feedback is crucial to cognitive engagement and thus learning.

“If you give effective feedback to students you double the rate of learning,” Almarode said. “So here’s my argument: cut back on the volume of assignments and increase your feedback on those you grade and you will double the rate of learning.”

That feedback doesn’t necessarily mean returning fully graded papers the next day. Instead, after students turn in their papers, Almarode suggests handing out three papers that demonstrate what it looks like to have met expectations, to still be developing, or to be below expectations. Alternatively, the teacher could hand out a rubric and ask students to score a work sample. Both of these strategies give students a sense of how they performed, and the feedback comes while the process of writing is still fresh.

“Give them something to actively engage with immediately,” Almarode advises. This feedback strategy doesn’t mean teachers shouldn’t assign other work, but he suggests doing more peer feedback sessions or dialoguing about the assignment to free teachers up for high quality feedback on fewer assignments.

Almarode realizes that his suggestions and strategies around engagement often feel to teachers like one more thing to do. He believes everyone within the profession needs to be better at filtering out demands on teacher time that aren’t the most important for classroom learning. He said it’s time to let go of old structures like math time in the morning or long staff meetings to go over procedures. When time is precious it should be spent collaborating, reflecting, improving and prepping. Administrators have a crucial job in protecting teachers time, not adding to long list of things they “should do.”

How To Ensure Students Are Actively Engaged and Not Just Compliant 3 January,2017Katrina Schwartz

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  • As a 35-year practitioner of arts integration strategies, I can attest to the effectiveness of each of the bullet points in this article. The beautiful thing about integrating the arts into everyday learning is that students find themselves immediately and deeply engaged. They are creating artistic products (in my case, dances) that express their understanding of complex ideas in figurative and beautiful ways. The arts used to be humanity’s way of passing along our cultural and species knowledge of the universe. Those are the real “basics” to which we should return.

    • Edie Mileham

      I couldn’t agree with you more about engagement and the arts, even though I am a classroom teacher. When you give students a chance to put their own stamp of creativity on their learning, you are fundamentally asking them to play with the learning concept, to reimagine it in a way that best satisfies their vision of it. What better way to make a concept your own than to play with it and then communicate it to others! My passion is to create lifelong teachers out of my amazing kindergarten and 1st grade students. Connecting learning to the arts, visual or otherwise, is a great way get students on that path!

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  • George Napier

    These 8 points are a wonderful resource for engaging learners. I already do a few of them in my classroom but I will take another look my curriculum to include the others. Lesson plans can get stale with age and sometimes I feel like I am assigning work just so it can be done as it is leftover from a previous instructor. Relevancy is key to learning and my material must be updated.

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  • Ginger Herte

    Thematic teaching was the new “-ism” when I bagan teaching 25 years ago. Students learned by approaching a subject from many aspects that included hands on learning, and visual and performing arts. Students could “step into the shoes” of current and historical people, learn more about the world around them and thrmselves. There was deeper meaning included in the curriculum. It was this type of teaching that inspired me to go into the profession. I loved being able to transform students and facilitate their own self discovery.

    That is all gone in today’s new pedagogy. Students crank through skill based stories week after week for the purposes of passing a test. The arts are completely gone in my school, very few teachers do activity based science, and history is taught solely from a textbook. Veteran teachers like myself must resort to subversion to teach the old style lest we be caught not following lock-step curriculum with our younger teammates. (and we won’t even get into the loss of academic freedom….)

    How sad……

    • Angela Or James Ward

      I disagree. I am finishing my student teaching this week and teaching today has absolutely shifted back to engaged and active participation. Curriculum instruction and department meetings are all about teaching content outside the box. You just have to craft the lessons around the content contained in the test.

      • Ginger Herte

        I wish that were true where I teach. Our kids have low test scores so it’s all about cranking out a contrived skill based story and test a week from our newly adopted curriculum, preferably on the computer. This and the common core math adoption take the bulk of the day. It’s difficult to find the time and energy to do anything else. I don’t follow the curriculum but I always have to watch my back…. our district has apparently never heard of STEAM or VAPA at the elementary level…

  • Mo Johnson

    Well spoken! Haven’t we all faked paying attention at one part of our lives? I see active engagement all about the flow. When we get our students so actively engaged, they tend to run out of time in the classroom! Finding those hands on projects that expand their minds and deepen their knowledge on the chosen topic is crucial. Almarode’s 8 measures of engagement promote the flow we strive to find in our students. Thank you for sharing

  • You address some important points but children in schools today remain outside the decision making process central to the activities and learning environment they are compelled to participate in. Your putting lipstick on a warthog….

    • DeleteYourAccount

      Yes but the point here is that teachers have an opportunity to treat children as partners in their own learning, and display of mastery.

      • Children as partners? Partners have an equal say in the decision making process. That’s not what the article recommends. Teachers are still designing the activities. What the author should be advocating for is emergent curricula, but that kind of curricula, while serving children well, is not adequate preparation for high stakes standardized testing. Children in American public education remain pawns, coerced into non-consensual learning activities from the day they enter pre-school. At what point in time do children’s natural inclination to learn in school settings go extinct because they recognize they are powerless to control the time sensitive nature of their learning activities?

        • Timothy Gallagher

          Clyde, face it, real teachers are eating people, not numbers.

          • eating? You mean teaching people…. But my question goes unanswered. If schools are to prepare children for participation in democratic society, how are we doing?

    • Timothy Gallagher

      I’m sorry, but you have not a clue to the real deal when teaching meets the students where they are. Teachers totally have the freedom to explore this route, and I do every day. Take your one size fits all education to the new WHITE HOUSE. The rest of us will continue to make students great.

      • Let’s stick to facts. U.S. schools are supposed to be preparing children for participation in democratic society through educational experience. With only 58% of voters participating in this past general election, and less than 34% participating in the 2014 general election, how are we doing?

      • I’m afraid you think I am advocating for once size fit’s all. That’s the last thing I am advocating for. I am saying despite the author’s good intentions, she doesn’t go far enough. I am saying that constructivist learning principles can be co-opted.

        • Hillary Clintub

          It all starts with establishing discipline, though. Discipline needs to be universal before anything else constructive can happen. If there’s no discipline, all other efforts are useless. And discipline starts in the home, not in the classroom.

          • Discipline? How do you know the experience you coerced your students through was not rejected and your class and content is the last thing those children want to keep in their memory?

          • Hillary Clintub

            Easy. You test them. And keep testing them. Pretty soon it becomes second nature to them, They’ll be able to repeat it in their sleep. As they say when asked “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?”…

          • Yes…Test them mercilessly in an authoritarian based, test-centric curricula structure. That’s the situation you have now. How is that working out from a societal standpoint?

          • Hillary Clintub

            It works out very well. The Marines have proven that over and over again. Training, testing, more training, more testing. When they experience a non-training scenario such as actual combat where the testing is real, their training kicks in and they perform extremely well. It works for non-combat training as well. It’s like learning the multiplication table. Even emergency medical techs know the value of constant training and testing. It’s the way they train surgeons, too. Experience piles up to where they can perform an operation blindfolded. Practice, practice, practice. Test, test. test. Perhaps you should go talk to a chess master or a violin virtuoso and ask them how they got to be a master or a virtuoso. Hint: they disciplined themselves to practice, practice, practice. In other words, they had the self-discipline first. And discipline usually starts with the parents. Lack of discipline in students is largely why we’re where we are now.

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  • Virtual Pedagogue

    My focus is on student engagement in higher ed, but it occurs to me that much of what’s described here would also be applicable, with some modifications, to more mature students. I’m curious about how much variance there is — across age, culture, and whatnot — with respect to what strategies work. I know that I’ve been guilty of ignoring important K-12 work because I (often wrongly) assumed it wouldn’t help in my university classrooms. I’d love to hear what others think about this since many of your are far more knowledgeable about it than I am. Also, thanks for this great post! I really appreciate this site.

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  • Hillary Clintub

    Might want to consult with the Marine Corps on this. The Marines have lots of proven methods to make sure their trainees are “actively engaged”. Have had for ages. Marine Corps Drill Instructors just seem to have a certain aura about them that gets trainees to willingly engage after their first encounter.

    • What you are describing is behavior modification. In military institutions the individuals have consented to behavior modification after most of their formative cognitive development has allready occured. Is that how the malleable minds of young children should be “schooled?” Through behavior modification?

      • Hillary Clintub

        Exactly. Parents instill discipline in their kids long before the kids are able to reason on an adult level. They insist that the kids learn how to do household chores and such whether they do so willingly or not. Didn’t your own parents teach you to take out the trash, mow the lawn or wash the dinner dishes? Mine sure did. And sometimes they had to use a paddle to instill it in me. Believe me, I learned. Before the age of five, too. A child who hasn’t learned discipline at home isn’t ready for school, regardless of age.

        • You are assuming all five year olds are developmentally all the same. Nothing could be further from the truth. How do you account for the genetic and environmental affects on cognitive systems of human beings who do not respond to coerced behavior modification?

          • Hillary Clintub

            No. It’s administrators and the bureaucrats in D.C. who assume that we can have a one-size-fits-all program for every kid in the country. I’m well aware that some species of humans are intellectually superior or inferior to other species and I’m all for segregating kids into separate schools for different learning capacities.

            As to those kids who don’t respond, I’d say it’s mostly lack of incentive. That’s why my parents had to use a paddle occasionally to “incentivize” me. If they still don’t respond, it’s time to consider placing them in special homes for the mentally challenged. Could be a birth defect.

          • Species of human? There is only one species of human beings…homo sapiens. You advocate for a dystopian education system that rewards compliance and punishes and segregates the less able.

          • Hillary Clintub

            Yeah. If the students refuse to comply and don’t start learning, it isn’t an “education” system, now is it? I don’t know what you libs call it, but it isn’t an education system by any definition of the word.

          • State sanctioned, standardized test centric, Pavlovian behavior modification, non-consensually mandated upon captured, unsuspecting children is the reality of the current system. Authoritarianism is hardly the way to educate future citizens who will participate in the World’s most powerful democracy. How are we doing on that front? Why do only 55-58% of the electorate participate in presidential elections and less than 34% participate in midterm elections and 20% participate in municipal elections? Wouldnt have anything to do with Pavlovian educational experiences in the classroom would it?

          • Hillary Clintub

            Children who aren’t properly taught to obey the rules and laws of their society wind up in a lot of trouble. That’s why we have to have prisons. You may call that “authoritarianism”, but I call it a peaceful and orderly society where citizens don’t have to worry when they walk down the street, the kind we had when I was growing up.

          • Are you even a teacher? You are advocating for the current test centric system that punishes less able children. Psycholgically shaming children with low test scores, utilizing constant pressure of Pavlovian behavior modification, the “school to prison pipeline” is exacerbated for thousands of children. Thats exactly what you are advocating for. Punish children and teachers for conditions outside of their control.

          • Hillary Clintub

            Did YOU ever successfully complete a military training program? Our military knows EXACTLY what to do with the “less abled” when it comes to teaching them. If they don’t discharge them outright, they at least shunt them into jobs where they’re less likely to harm themselves or others. They don’t have the time or resources to waste on losers. American taxpayers don’t either. We, as a country, need to invest in the best and quit wasting money trying to prop up the worst. Kids who won’t learn despite all our best efforts can become burger flippers or trash sorters for a career. Some of these kids definitely NEED to be left behind. It’s for the good of the country.

          • Yes. I did. But you are confusing children with adult Marine recruits who have consented to military training. Children are not adult military recruits and public education should never-ever be boot camp for children. Your description of children who do not do well in test-centric, stress filled Pavlovian curricula experiences as losers is unsettling. Have a good evening.

          • TAM7077

            I agree about the military to a point, but the motivation to learn is still an intrinsic affair and for whatever reason there are students who could careless, no matter what you do, to learn. Especially, in math classes where they have been told by adults it does not matter…. What has changed in America from being #1 in the world in the 70’s to 20+ now, is parents who are not parenting. Telling your kid that school is not that important is crap. I hear from students all the time how math is not necessary and school is stupid. They are getting that from their parents or lack there of. They are too wrapped up in their technology (phones) and social media to see that no one is going to do it for them. Parents need to be involved, set limits, and focus on their child’s academic involvement. Teachers can design and implement the greatest lessons and the student, whose parents have tuned them out, are not going to make an effort if they think their parents don’t care. What the military is great at is refocusing the recruit to believe in him/herself. Just that reset gives them a point to start from and a goal to achieve something for themselves. Parents are suppose to instill that in their kids. From what I have seen over 30+ years in education is parents are to busy with their own lives to even give their kids a chance in hell. Some kids have 3 or 4 extended families and NONE of them care if the kids needs are being met. I have raised my 2 kids plus 10+ others whose parents were too busy screwing up their own lives. I got to enjoy watching these kids rise above their parents bull to finish high school and go on to better things. My solution is before people can become parents they should have to sign a contract saying they will be there 24/7 for their child and that the kids needs come before their own for at least 18 years. That would make more of a difference for those kids than a great lesson.

          • Steve Remington

            Your public display of ignorance of the topics of sociology, political science and education theory is admirable. You are a role model to the ignorant everywhere in the Internet

            Also just FYI: Real-life is not the military and the military is not real-life.

          • How long have we heard the old canard.. “its the parent’s fault.” Youve been getting tough on teachers and children with punishing accountability measures for a long time now. How’s that working out for you?


    • Have the children who are coerced into American K-12 schools consented to the test centric behavior modification they are forced to participate in?

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  • The issue of enthusiasm toward school learning, in a compiled graph:

    Another resource to spawn action against this trend is Beyond Measure (both book and new documentary) by Vicki Abeles (Race to Nowhere director).

    If you have a 3rd, 4th, or 5th Grader, or are an elementary school teacher/principal, I highly recommend our print+web CoreAtlas — a student directed critical thinking platform for core standards in math, science, language arts, & personal quests… it mashes comic books with standards in a uniquely awesome way that hundreds of students are loving.
    There needs to be a lot of solutions, maybe 50,000,000 of them every year! Thanks all for your good works 🙂
    Carpe diem!
    Paul (Cofounder MindMyEdu.com creators of the CoreAtlas)

  • Keith Reidford

    This is what I miss most about being in the classroom. Watching student motivation increase when a culminating activity possesses 3-4 of the 8 characteristics listed is so rewarding. It’s my experience that having a meaningful audience, choice, and being connected to a past or possible future life experience as the most important.

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  • EOEastland

    Amazing that zero of eight ask about learning. At a minimum “at or above grade level standards OR meets a specific recorded learning need” should be added in order to avoid tasks devoid of real learning. Who cares if students are engaged in tasks that do not further their own knowledge, skill, or habit base?


Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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